The plight of a refugee.

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: The Sunday Leader
| Date: 20000305

"The current situation in the country is undoubtedly dangerous and thoroughly inhospitable for any returning refugees. No sooner they land and are (sic) questioned on the basis that they have gone out to create trouble. This is because of the presumption of the security forces.

Adding insult to injury many Tamils are arrested at the airport and charged under the obnoxious law - Immigrants and Emigrants (Amendment) Act No. 42 of 1998. This amendment as presently worded is more savage to the Tamils. It is made a non-bailable offence. Therefore the right of a citizen to prepare any process of appeal or recanvassing of the decision taken is practically prohibited owing to the refusal of bail. Under this law more than 100 Tamils have been convicted and serving one year in prison and a fine of one hundred thousand rupees. - TULF MP Joseph Pararajasingham to visiting Norwegian Parliament President Kirsti Kolle Grndhal in Baticaloa on March 13, 1999.

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Thirty-one-year old Thulasi Gnanakrishnan is a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka who obtained political asylum along with her family in Canada on February 28, 1994. Subsequently the conventional refugee status conferred upon the family was revoked as a result of a vacation order filed by the Canadian ministry of citizenship and immigration on the grounds that the Gnanakrishnan family had made false declarations in their refugee claim. Though the Gnanakrishnan’s made every effort possible to prevent being deported from Canada, these attempts proved fruitless.

While pursuing available legal remedies that would stop her from being deported to Sri Lanka, the very land from which she fled, Thulasi Gnanakrishnan filed an affidavit in Toronto on December 16, 1999. In that she stated under oath some of the reasons as to why she and her family should not be sent back to Sri Lanka until proper judicial review of some applications made on their behalf was determined. The crux of the matter was that she feared irreparable harm would befall them if removed from Canada.

"I am certain that we will be detained by the Sri Lankan authorities on our arrival at the international airport in Colombo as I am aware that Sri Lankan Tamils who are returning to this airport are now being detained and questioned about what they did while they were abroad, whether they claimed refugee status, and as they are viewed as potential LTTE sympathisers." Thulasi stated in the affidavit.

She also said in the affidavit, "I am certain that we will be detained by the Sri Lankan authorities on arrival here, because after our departure the government has introduced a new legislation imposing a custodial punishment to the returnees who had originally left Sri Lanka illegally and unlawfully. When I left Sri Lanka, I left illegally and unlawfully as I was fearing persecution. I left on a false passport given to me by an agent which had been taken by the agent later."

The thing that Thulasi Gnanakrishnan greatly feared came true when she and her two children Navin and Thebana were forcibly deported last week by Canadian authorities in spite of her protestations. When the Cathay Pacific flight from Toronto to Colombo via Hong Kong landed in Katunayake on Monday 28, at 10.30 p.m., the Gnanakrishnans were detained. They were grilled for one and a half hours initially by security personnel. Later they underwent a gruelling three hour interrogation by a team of officials.

Thulasi had also stated in her affidavit as follows, "I believe that we will be beaten if we are questioned and held by the Sri Lankan authorities as this is a routine part of their interrogation of Tamil Sri Lankans." Even though her fear of being detained and interrogated was proved correct, her anxiety about getting the third degree has not materialised. But she and her children did undergo a nasty experience. At one stage, one of the interrogators had been particularly harsh on her 10-year-old son Navin. The little lad born overseas and bred in a liberal western environment was not used to this type of rude questioning. Besides he was also not aware that he belonged to the Tamil ethnicity.’ So the little man also retorted. The big guy interrogating him got angry and said, "Shut up!!" In keeping with the Tamil saying Ilangkandru Payamariyaathu, (The young calf knows no fear) the little man also said, "Shut up!"

The big guy got enraged. He took a rod,’ raised it menacingly and advanced. At this point the mother Thulasi began screaming at the man asking him not to hit the little boy. The big man calmed down a bit. But then he let off steam in a manner that once again highlighted the Sri Lankan political situation. "Don’t think this is Canada. This is a Sinhala country. You Tamils have no place here. You all have no rights here." This was the essence of the long harangue.

Compared to what other Tamils have undergone during interrogation, the Gnanakrishnan’s experience was certainly mild. Nevertheless it was enough to shake the family. Luckily for the family some distant relatives living in suburban Colombo had been alerted to their calamity and got into action. With certain palms being oiled and certain purses being fattened, the system started working quickly.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, February 29, they were taken to the Negombo courts. The family was charged under the immigrants and emigrants act. The documentation was all in Sinhala and the family did not understand what was going on. But all they wanted was freedom. A Sinhala lawyer was retained. Two professional bailbondsmen were arranged. Bail was granted and the trial was fixed for March 31.

After their ordeal the Gnanakrishnan’s were free at last.

The experience of Thulasi Gnankrishnan both in Sri Lanka and abroad is not an isolated instance. She, like many other Tamils, is a victim of circumstances. Her predicament is also illustrative of the perpetual conflict between administrative regulations and humanitarian considerations. Of moral questions on the one hand and legalistic answers on the other. The problems faced by the Gnanakrishnan family, reflects, the existential realities that Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad face, in different degrees.

Thulasi and her husband Kumarasamy Gnanakrishnan both hail from the Jaffna peninsula. Kumarasamy, born in 1957, went to Germany in the early 80s after undergoing a harrowing experience at the hands of the Sri Lankan army.

Thulasi born in 1968 also went to Germany in 1988 after suffering a terrifying ordeal during the Indian army period. They met and married in Germany in 1989. They have two children both born in Germany. Their refugee claims however were rejected in Germany. Therefore they are technically Sri Lankan citizens along with their children. Their passports were Sri Lankan too. With conditions in Germany being uncertain they both decided to move to Canada in the interests of the future of their children. With the aid of an agent’ referred to in official circles as a people smuggler,’ the Gnanakrishnans obtained visas to the USA. They handed over their passports to the agent’ and then crossed over to the Canadian border and made a refugee claim. The only mistake they made was that they hid the fact about having come from Germany and instead said they came straight from Sri Lanka.

It may be recalled that in 1986 a shipload of Tamil refugees landed in a ship off New Foundland in Canada and claimed that they had come directly from Sri Lanka. It was later revealed that the ship had come from Germany.

The reason for Tamil refugees moving from one country to another claiming falsely to have come directly from Sri Lanka is because certain refugee claimants stating the whole truth about having come from a European country find their claims denied on some occasions depending upon the vagaries of various arbitrators. The very real reasons that impelled these people to flee Sri Lanka are overlooked in legalistic appraisals that consider this type of movement as asylum shopping.’ It is difficult at times for the refugee applicants to demonstrate clearly the reasons for their leaving a country that has accepted them as a refugee and seeking asylum in another. It is for this reason that very legitimate’ refugees hide these truths in a fresh refugee claim. Legalistically, misrepresenting facts is a grave offence that would entitle the authorities to revoke the asylum granted earlier on the grounds that the claim was false.

This is what happened to the Gnanakrishnans. Though granted refugee status in 1994 it was subsequently revoked because it was discovered that they had lied about coming from Sri Lanka whereas they had really come to Canada from Germany. Retaining different lawyers at different times, the Gnanakrishnans resorted to every legal option available to stay on in Canada. The family was also quite enterprising and was running one grocery store had also invested in another. All attempts however failed and a deportation order to Sri Lanka was issued. The irony in this is that the Gnanakrishnanas were rejected because they had really come from Germany and not Sri Lanka as they claimed. But when it came to deporting they were being sent back not to Germany from where they came but to Sri Lanka from where they fled originally. The Canandian authorities who are finding it difficult to deport alleged ex-LTTE chief in Canada, Manickavasagam Suresh, found it easy to be firm and inflexible with lesser fry like the Gnanakrishnanas.

With all remedies seemingly exhausted, two final appeals were lodged on the PDRCC class basis and on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. An application seeking an injunction on the deportation order was filed as a desperate last resort pending hearing of these appeals. This too was turned down. Adding insult to injury they were advised to go to Sri Lanka and make a fresh application seeking entry to Canada on compassionate and humanitarian grounds. When ordinary people encounter extraordinary difficulties they become desperate. So the Gnanakrishnans went underground. It is assumed that the family split with the father hiding in one place and the others in another.

Meanwhile some relative of the family in the U.S.A. contacted two lawyers there and sought legal advice. They were told that the family could cross the US - Canada border and seek asylum afresh in America. So Thulasi and the children crossed the peace bridge’ and tried to present a refugee claim at the US immigration office at Buffalo, New York on February 24. The advise proffered by the US lawyers was apparently wrong and the reception afforded quite disastrous.

The officers at the US end refused to entertain their application and insisted that since they came from Canada they should return and make a claim. When Thulasi remained adamant, the US officials acted in a manner that was quite contrary to what immigration officials are supposed to do when confronted with a similar situation. They summoned a friendly’ taxi, bundled the family in and ordered the cab driver to hand over’ them to the Canandian immigration authorities at the other end. They also contacted their Canandian counterparts at the other end and tipped them off.

The Gnanakrishnans were eagerly apprehended’ by the Canandian authorities. Since a deportation order had already been issued and the family was absconding, prompt action was taken. After holding them temporarily at a detention centre, arrangements were made to fly them out to Colombo. Wilting under the stress and strain, Thulasi collapsed. But after providing some medical attention the Canadian immigration authorities whisked her away on a wheelchair to the airplane along with the children. The immigration authorities also acted irregularly when they handed over the family’s travel documents to the Cathay Pacific flight pilot and instructed him to hand it over to the Colombo authorities. They left Toronto on the 25th night.

Returning refugees involuntarily to the land from which they fled is by itself a grave violation of all laws governing refugees in spirit and letter. This sin’ was being further compounded by the Canadian authorities explicitly asking the airline to literally hand over them to Colombo. There was absolutely no reason for them to have virtually identified these people as deportees to Sri Lanka. When the Gnanakrishnans asked for their documents, the airline staff refused and also treated them like criminals. At Hong Kong their connecting flight was delayed and the Gnanakrishnans were compelled to stay for nearly 15 hours at the Hong Kong airport.

When the dishevelled family landed in Colombo, the pilot handed over the travel documents to the Sri Lankan authorities; learning that they had been deported, the officials pounced on them. Thereafter came the long and harrowing ordeal.

In Toronto, the authorities had provided the family with emergency certificates issued by the Lankan High Commission in Ottawa. They were assured by the Canadians that the Colombo authorities will not arrest them because this was a legal travel document issued by Sri Lanka itself. Yet the family was arrested. Moreover there was a responsibility on the part of Canada to ensure that no harm befell the refugee family deported involuntarily from Canada. Frantic appeals were made from Canada to the Canadian High Commission in Colombo to take some follo-up action. But there was absolutely no response from the mission.

What is evident in the case of the Gnanakrishnans as well as many other Tamil refugee claimants being deported to Sri Lanka is the flagrant violation of refugee norms by western nations. The cases are being treated on legalistic terms alone and no moral, ethical or humanitarian consideration is being afforded. The Sri Lankan authorities on the other hand are enforcing the immigration and emigration act very strictly but inhumanely in many instances. The Untied Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is merely monitoring the return of deported refugees in a very passive manner. Hundreds of Tamil refugees have been detained, interrogated and convicted after being returned or deported to Sri Lanka. The Western world turns a blind eye. What is happening to the Gnanakrishnan family is symptomatic of a vast human tragedy.

Courtesy: The Sunday Leader - March 5th, 2000